Ever since the Heineken Cup pools were announced, the big draw for Ulster supporters was always going to be the visit of Leicester Tigers to Ravenhill.
It’ll be tough but this is the one we’ve been waiting for Ever since the Heineken Cup pools were announced, the big draw for Ulster supporters was always going to be the visit of Leicester Tigers to Ravenhill.
Given the strength of the group, some might have wondered, with some justification, whether Ulster would still be in the running by Round 5.
Nevertheless, while the opening victory over Clermont got Ulster off to an excellent and encouraging start, it has been the back-to-back bonus point victories over Aironi which mean that things have become intriguing and downright juicy.
What sort of a challenge do the Tigers pose? Well, if you look at the statistics, Richard Cockerill’s men are an ominous prospect. On paper, they are the form team in the Aviva Premiership, having attained 29 out of a possible 35 points in their last seven matches.
In fact, they have lost only once in their last 12 games in all tournaments — and that defeat was away in Clermont.
Thank goodness that rugby is not played on paper.
Indeed, those who watched the Tigers’ performance last Saturday against Wasps would have left distinctly underwhelmed and unimpressed.
To Richard Cockerill’s credit he has dealt superbly with the disruption caused by the RWC and a worrying injury list.
While he does have a talented squad to call upon, one particular injury could have a big say in the result on Friday night.
While we should not downplay the loss of lineout specialist, Louis Deacon, and human battering ram, Manu Tuilagi, the return of Geoff Parling and Anthony Allen could not be better timed.
The absence of Toby Flood, however, leaves a serious gap in terms of experience, the ability to organise, direct, and launch attacking threats.
Flood’s replacement, Billy Twelvetrees, may have scored 29 points last Saturday but his performance was a mixed bag.
He does not yet possess the confidence or experience to play right on the gainline — he sits deeper and distributes more. He will back himself at times, but such decisions are far more telegraphed than Flood.
Leicester’s best tries have come from Flood attacking flat and getting the ball out of contact with skilful offloads and passes.
His injury has also broken up the Youngs- Flood halfback partnership, and England’s scrumhalf suffered accordingly with a below-par performance.
Youngs, Twelvetrees and Allen now have a game together under their belts. They will not be as rusty again.
The Tigers’ European pedigree and their incredible competitive culture mean that Ulster can be sure that their opposition will raise the level of intensity by several notches. Whether Tigers can raise the standard of their play is another matter.
What Ulster can also count on is a powerful, aggressive and potent Leicester set-piece and this could be the key area where the game will be decided — along with winning the collisions.
There is no doubt that the Leicester pack is formidable, but on current form the Ulster pack should fear no one. They have the personnel, technical ability, experience and leadership.
They take no nonsense and shell out a fair bit of trouble themselves.
As always, Brian McLaughlin and his coaching team will do their own meticulous homework, but above all they will focus on Ulster’s performance and what the players do well.
The emphatic victory over Edinburgh is a fillip to Ulster’s confidence – in the tries scored there was a raw pace, power and execution that augurs well for Friday evening.
If the pack can dominate their opposite numbers, the backs have to maintain their current ambition and confidence.
Over in Welford Road, there was far too much lateral movement and passing with little ‘go forward’ or imagination.
In recent games angles and space are being exploited more than earlier in the season.
The signs are positive. It will be a tough game, absolutely, but Ulster have the players and the game to not only emerge victorious, but also to deny the Tigers a losing bonus point — a result that would effectively end their qualification hopes.
As we count down the days, it is hard to contain the excitement created by such a crucial and thrilling fixture on home soil.
I am confident Ulster will raise Heineken Cup fever to an even higher level.